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Tate's Thoughts About Go Just Surrounded My Thoughts About 围棋

10 Feb 2011

I was pleasantly surprised the other day when I came across Tate's musings on 围棋 as a metaphor for strategic thinking:

Go’s lessons have helped define my strategic approach to politics, organizing, and in some ways, my whole life. After a week of mastering basic play, the lesson of Go suddenly popped out at me: Don’t sweat the small stuff. Or, more accurately, know when to dive into the small stuff and when to focus on the big picture.

In Go, it’s all too easy to get drawn into a small hand-to-hand combat battles. They happen constantly, and simultaneously, all over the board. But good players know when to abandon a close combat battle to take initiative on another part of the board. In Japanse terms, this concept is captured in the two opposing words “sente” (sen-tay) and “gote” (go-tay). Sente roughly translates to “initiative,” the ability to set the agenda and control the game flow. When you are playing sente, you force your opponent into gote, or defense. But when you are in a position of gote, you can often sacrifice a small battle to regain sente in another part of the board. And often, what seems like a sacrifice turns out to be a long term gain.
via tatehausman.com » Lessons From Go

Since learning the simple rules and some basic gameplay about 10 years ago, I too am often struck by the parallels between the many inherent tensions in 围棋 -- initiative/defense, big/small, active/reactive, thickness/efficiency, etc. -- and the same tensions in other domains like politics, business, and (of course) the field of "procedural epistemology" more commonly known as "software development." I've also developed an unexpected fondness for the gameplay itself.

A Typical Scenario

One effect of all the aforementioned tensions is that playing 围棋 is a mind-expanding practice. Think strange loops and other recursive processes.

This is a typical scenario ...

I'm trying to decide where to play my next piece. The last few moves have all been part of some (to borrow Tate's descriptive phrase) "hand-to-hand combat" contest for the lower-left corner. For whatever reason I broaden my focus from the immediate area being contested to consider how neighboring battles might influence the result, and vice-versa. Then some other impulse prompts me to take stock of the overall contest, evaluate my strategy, and weigh options for taking the initiative elsewhere on the board. All part of the game.

The Mind-Expanding Part

Here's where the mind-expanding part comes in -- instead of dropping back down to focus on how to implement some strategy on a specific part of the board, I do the opposite and continue to widen the scope of my reflection to include the act of playing itself. And then widen the scope still further to consider our choice of venue. Which makes me think about the innumerable coincidences that led to this moment. And that leads to big-narrative questions like "where do I want to settle with my family?" and "how can I set a better example for my daughter?" and "what should I make for dinner tonight?". Questions that seem out of sync with what I'm doing in that moment, and I take another mental step back to think about the idea of levels of abstraction, and on to the too-intimate-to-put-into-words-breath-in-breath-out actions and reactions behind each moment, the micro-traversals of contextual boundaries that make thought possible, which leads me back to the pleasure of traversal from this (here and now) moment to the next. And that next moment happens to resolve into a reflection on the elegant instruments in front of me: the expansive game board, the polished stones, the emergent cellular-automaton-like patterns, the building-block structures -- I've always loved that a double-eye creates an auspicious eight or, rotated 90 degrees, an infinite symbol. And then, 5 or 6 blinks later, it's back into the strategy and tactics of the game at hand.

In 围棋 that kind of tangent feels like it's still part of the game. There's a sacramental quality to the game-play.

Name Game

I'm not a fan of the English name "Go". I prefer the Chinese name "围棋", which translated literally means "Surrounding Chess." It's both more descriptive -- you win by surrounding more territory -- and more evocative. For example, “围”这个字总是让我想起如"周围环境"似的词组来的. "Go" just seems totally inadequate.

And confusing. Consider this episode from 5 or 6 years ago: I was playing 围棋 with Colin and Kit at a cafe in Williamsburg. A young girl came over and started watching us. After a minute or two she asked us what we were playing. We were pretty intent on the game so, without really looking up, I just said, "Go." She seemed confused, and asked again. This time I looked up, smiled, and said, "Go." She seemed taken aback and went back to her table. I put my head back down into the game and it was only after we left the cafe that her slightly hurt expression made sense to me.

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